Diontae Johnson labeled Steelers biggest X-Factor in 2020

Diontae Johnson #18 of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Diontae Johnson #18 of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of players who could step into significant roles in 2020. Here’s why Diontae Johnson may be the most important.

Apart from Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Haden, and a half-dozen players in the trenches, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a relatively young team. Second and third-year players like Devin Bush, James Washington, Ulysees Gilbert, and Benny Snell could all be asked to step up into bigger roles this season. Wide receiver, Diontae Johnson, may have the most daunting task of all.

Just two years ago, the Steelers wide receiver room had veterans like Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Justin Hunter. Now, their wide receiver with the most game experience is 23-year-old, JuJu Smith Schuster. But he’s far from the only youthful receiver on the team.

James Washington and Chase Claypool will both play roles for the team this year, but Diontae Johnson is going to have his work cut out for him. Taking over Antonio Brown’s former role as the team’s X-receiver isn’t going to be easy.

Recently, Brent Sobleski of Bleacher Report wrote an article detailing every team’s biggest ‘X-Factor’ for the upcoming season. For his selections, Sobleski chose individuals who have yet to reach their full potential, rookies who could contribute at a higher level than their draft status indicates, and veterans stepping into new situations with the need to re-establish themselves.

Here’s some of what he had to say about Diontae Johnson as the biggest ‘X-Factor’ for the Steelers:

"Diontae Johnson’s rookie performance portends a much bigger role in the scheme with Roethlisberger’s return. The 2019 third-round draft pick created separation on 70.2 percent of his single-coverage targets and forced a wide receiver-leading 18 missed tackles, per Pro Football Focus. Smith-Schuster once benefited greatly from playing alongside Antonio Brown. The same could happen for Johnson with defenses concentrating on Smith-Schuster this fall. As such, it will come as no surprise if the second-year receiver overtakes his teammate as the most productive target in the Steelers offense, especially with Pittsburgh possibly trending away from Smith-Schuster since he’s a free agent after the upcoming season."

Sobleski goes as far as to say that it would be ‘no surprise’ to see Johnson become the most productive Steelers receiver in 2020. While I would still give the advantage to JuJu, Johnson will certainly play an important role this season.

Though James Washington will be in contention for snaps in 12-personnel this year, Johnson is by far the ‘twitchiest’ of Pittsburgh’s receivers, and he did an excellent job at creating separation in year one.

According to Next Gen Stats, Johnson led all NFL wide receivers last year in average separation per target. This is a trait that is extremely valuable as a receiver in the NFL. Because of his innate ability to get open and make defenders miss after the catch, it didn’t take long for the 5’10 1/2”, 183-pound receiver to draw comparisons to Antonio Brown.

Though an Emmanuel Sanders comparison might be more fitting, Johnson has some of the qualities you like to see in a number one receiver. Admittedly, there are many things he needs to work on if he hopes to achieve that status.

Johnson needs to be able to catch the ball more consistently in traffic – something he didn’t do at a high rate as a rookie. He also needs to refine his routes and work on getting upfield after the catch.

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Though there’s little doubt that Johnson will be a good receiver for the Steelers in the future, his play in 2020 will determine how much of an ‘X-Factor’ he will ultimately end up being year.